The Spark

How Sunil Pant ignited a queer rights movement in Nepal

01 March, 2014


ON A MONSOON NIGHT IN 2005, Sunil Babu Pant was at home in Kathmandu, in the flat he shared with his parents. For the past two days, his phone had been ringing incessantly; doctors at a government hospital across town were calling about an unclaimed body. The deceased was a meti—a person born male but with feminine identity—who had died from AIDS complications three days earlier. The corpse was beginning to decompose and smell, but neither the meti’s family nor the doctors would touch it. Even within the medical establishment, AIDS was a highly stigmatised disease. Besides, the doctors had no idea how to find a temple that would cremate a meti. They turned to Pant, who was the director of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s first organisation for sexual and gender minorities. The meti had been one of his volunteers.

Pant had waited to see if someone else would come forward, but now he decided to act. He set out cautiously. Kathmandu’s streets were crawling with security forces but almost entirely devoid of civilians: the country was embroiled in a civil war, and its capital was frequently under curfew as part of the ruling monarchy’s efforts to quash a nearly decade-long Maoist rebellion. Pant convinced a taxi driver to take him to the hospital with the headlights turned off, and instructed him to wait outside.  When Pant emerged from the hospital, he was cradling the meti’s emaciated corpse in his arms. The taxi sped off without him. By then, two BDS staff members had arrived to help. They hired another cab, for ten times the usual rate, and crept toward the Pashupatinath temple complex—one of the holiest Hindu sites in the world.

At Pashupatinath, Pant tried negotiating with the priests, who said they couldn’t perform funeral rituals for someone who was neither a man nor a woman. They could also see the body was wasted by disease and refused to allow it onto the complex’s cremation grounds. Pant and his companions ferried the corpse to a few more temples, but were repeatedly turned away. Finally, at a small Hindu-Buddhist temple by the Bagmati River, they found priests willing to perform the last rites.

The pyre was damp because of the monsoon, and it took almost six hours for the body to burn. By the time the ashes were being swept away by the river, the sun had come up, and half a dozen BDS volunteers had congregated at the temple. They started talking about the upcoming Gaijatra, an annual festival of the dead marked by flamboyant costumes, mockery of the elite, and, as in some other Nepali festivals, processions in which metis dance to earn money. Though BDS had held gay pride parades during the festival before, the volunteers decided to make that year’s Gaijatra memorable to collectively mourn friends and colleagues lost to AIDS or violence. The increasing militarisation of Kathmandu’s streets had led to a rise in the abuse and extortion of metis by police and security forces, and BDS members wanted to boldly claim their right to public space.

In 2011, the Blue Diamond Society organised an attention-grabbing lesbian destination wedding ceremony. The Hindu ritual between two American women was considered a public relations success for the country’s queer rights movement. PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP/ Getty Images

That year, Pant and BDS celebrated Gaijatra in Kathmandu with a particularly colourful and conspicuous gay pride parade. “We first thought we should make Gaijatra a special LGBTI”—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex—“event for the death celebration, to pay respects,” Pant told me during one of our interviews. “But it became something much more than that. It became political.” BDS outdid itself with each successive Gaijatra. Pant’s organising and strategising abilities ensured that, by 2012, pride parades had been held in three cities, and the number of marchers at each event typically swelled into the thousands. Pant’s audacity took many by surprise. During the 2007 Gaijatra, the gaunt, handsome 35-year-old sat atop an elephant, waving a rainbow flag, and rode through Kathmandu’s streets to the royal palace. Several years later, a US Embassy official accosted me at a cocktail party to discuss the stunt: “Do you know what he did? He rode a rainbow elephant right up to the king’s fucking gate! Who does that?”

WHEN HE FOUNDED BDS IN 2001, Pant was essentially an ad hoc social worker, distributing condoms in Kathmandu’s cruising spots, which earned him the nickname “condom boy.” Within a year of the “rainbow elephant” incident, however, Sunil Pant had become a national political representative—the first openly gay federal-level legislator in Asia.

Nepal’s civil war ended with a peace agreement in 2006. In its aftermath, there was a general flowering of demands for social inclusion and minority rights. Pant’s ambitions for LGBTI rights kept pace. The king abdicated in 2008, and the country began to transition from Hindu monarchy to secular republicanism. “Every day was unpredictable,” Pant told me. “The country, our understanding of what our government was—it changed constantly. We saw different groups of people claiming rights in the newspapers or on the streets. We knew we were going to be part of the change in the country, and we could see it was going to mean trying a lot of different methods to make sure we were included.”

Pant’s methods encompassed everything from hosting a primetime television talk show to massaging paperwork through Nepal’s sclerotic bureaucracy. A significant component of his work with BDS involved the Nepali law. Unlike former British colonies such as India, which inherited colonial laws banning sex “against the order of nature,” and unlike the roughly 80 countries that criminalise homosexuality in some way, Nepal did not have any anti-gay legislation on its books. But its laws had been twisted to target LGBTI people on occasion, and violence—particularly against metis, Nepal’s most visible queer minority—was common. Between 2003 and 2006, at least 90 LGBTI people had been attacked, according to BDS’s documentation of reported violence. Most of this abuse, which the international NGO Human Rights Watch called “sexual cleansing,” was committed by security forces.

The same year Pant established BDS (in part to document and combat the violence), an NGO filed a case in a New Delhi court to amend a clause of the Indian Penal Code that outlaws homosexual intercourse. While sexual minorities still remain criminalised under Indian law, in Nepal—thanks largely to Pant’s legal and political efforts—the nominal protections for LGBTI citizens are among the most progressive in the world.

Pant galvanised Nepal’s queer population, encouraging it to enter the mainstream of minority politics. Scott Long, the founder of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT programme, told me, “All this legal progress is one thing, and it’s reverberated around the world in some way, sure. But what Sunil’s done in Nepal is [to allow] an entire group of people to be angry—he’s told them it’s their right to be upset about how they get treated, upset about their government. He’s convinced them their opinion and perspective counts.”

Despite Pant’s flair for political theatre, and the loyalty he inspires among his supporters, he can be private and aloof in person. Some have read him as shy, others as arrogant. When I first saw him in 2010, at a talk at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in New York City, I was surprised that the man who had steered Nepal to the forefront of South Asia in terms of LGBTI rights was so soft-spoken that his microphone had to be turned up. Yet over the course of that evening, and over the course of my subsequent reporting on BDS’s activities, I realised that Pant’s understated manner, coupled with his national and international achievements, was a part of his charisma. A year after attending Pant’s talk in New York, I moved to Nepal to work in Kathmandu as a reporter, and as a researcher for an international gender and sexuality think tank. Over three years, I closely followed BDS and its director as they fought—and won—some of their most difficult battles.

Pant founded BDS to empower the LGBTI people he had befriended, in places like Ratna Park, in Kathmandu. Kyle Knight

Under Pant’s guidance, BDS became one of Nepal’s biggest NGOs, employing nearly 800 people in 53 offices around the country and boasting a network of hundreds of thousands of affiliated members. Pant himself has become much sought-after in international HIV/AIDS and LGBTI rights circles. He has also, inevitably, faced criticism both at home and abroad. But the complaints are almost always divulged on condition of anonymity, and often prefaced with admissions of admiration. Some think Pant has focused too much on rights and not enough on HIV/AIDS; some say he has put too much energy into HIV/AIDS work at the expense of lesbian issues; others argue that he is in it for fame. There have also been graver allegations of corruption, which have been partly responsible for Pant recently distancing himself from public life.

Nepal’s queer rights movement is now irrevocably part of the country’s international image. Last year, Nepal submitted a movie about a lesbian romance to the Academy Awards’ foreign film category. And when India’s Supreme Court re-criminalised same-sex intercourse in December 2013, after a lower court had briefly legalised it, Nepal’s former prime minister (and former Maoist rebel) Baburam Bhattarai tweeted: “Glad 2note that Nepal is ahead of other S Asian countries in LGBT rights. Nobody should object pvt sexual acts of consenting adults.” The country’s queer-friendly reputation and the gains made by its LGBTI activists may be more tenuous than Bhattarai would admit, but they are significant—and they rest on the efforts of Pant and the Blue Diamond Society.

In September 2011, Nepal’s then-prime minister Baburam Bhattarai (centre) met Sunil Pant and other LGBTI activists from the Blue Diamond Society, to discuss the issue of “third gender” citizenship. PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP / Getty Images


IN JUNE 2004, a lawyer named Achyut Prasad Kharel asked the Nepali government to shut BDS down for “encouraging homosexuality in the name of human rights.” His case, though eventually dismissed, garnered significant media attention and, according to BDS, led to an uptick in violence against LGBTI people. In the most egregious incident, on 6 August 2004, a police officer slit a meti’s throat after forcing her to perform oral sex. BDS activists took to the streets, but security forces broke up their protests. Three days later, the police arrested 39 BDS members and detained them without charge.

“The media attention from the Kharel case sort of gave permission for people to think of us as pollutants, as against Nepali culture,” Pant told me during a 2012 interview in the BDS office, which looked over an empty lot piled with garbage tended by somnolent cows. “The police came after us more aggressively,” he said.

At the Supreme Court, some officials, like the joint registrar Ram Krishna Timalsena, saw the Kharel case as an opportunity to clarify Nepal’s position on homosexuality even though Nepal’s LGBTI population didn’t have the legal burden of criminalisation. The only mention of “unnatural sex” in the Muluki Ain—an expansive nineteenth-century Hindu code that is the fulcrum of the country’s legal system—was a vague reference in a chapter on bestiality. Timalsena, now the president of Kathmandu’s National Law College, told me, “It was an important moment to make it clear that even with unnatural sex mentioned in the country code, regulating private consensual same-sex behaviour was not an issue for Nepal’s criminal law.” Following judicial procedure, the Supreme Court asked the government to explain why the “unnatural sex” clause did not render BDS illegal. The government eventually answered in line with Timalsena’s reasoning: homosexuality was not a criminal issue according to its reading of the law.

This clarification opened the door for BDS to file a petition demanding official recognition of sexual and gender minorities and their rights, in the hopes of countering the rising violence. “Because we didn’t have the same criminalisation that other countries did, we could ask for more,” Pant told me. “And we sort of had to ask for more, since we didn’t have that crime to fight back against so specifically.”

Pant approached Hari Phuyal, who had worked as a legal advisor to the chief of Nepal’s UN mission, to be the lead lawyer. “It was a very open-ended case,” Phuyal told me at the Kathmandu office of the International Commission of Jurists, where he consults. At first, he had very little idea of the complexities of LGBTI rights. ““I asked Sunil, ‘What is the G?’ and, ‘What is the T?’, and ‘What does this mean legally for people?’” Pant invited Arvind Narrain and Vivek Divan, Indian lawyers who were working on the challenge to India’s penal code, to Kathmandu. Pant, Narrain and Divan—a trio of gay men—lectured Phuyal on identity, legality and rights. “It was like a proper classroom for me,” Phuyal said.

Pant, BDS and three organisations under BDS’s financial umbrella filed their maverick petition in April 2007. By then, Timalsena was the Supreme Court’s head registrar, and he assigned Justice Bala Ram KC to the case as senior judge. Justice KC had trained in Scotland in natural resources law and had a reputation for referencing a wide range of international standards in his wordy judgments. When I prodded Timalsena about his choice, he chuckled, calling KC “a very smart man, and an activist.”

ON 24 NOVEMBER 2007, a small crowd settled into a tense calm as Justices Bala Ram KC and Pavan Kumar Ojha took their seats for the third hearing of Sunil Babu Pant and Others v. Government of Nepal and Others. Pant himself was curiously absent. “I was scheduled to go to a meeting in Europe,” Pant told me. “Everyone was nervous because they wanted me to be there. They thought there wasn’t a voice for the community unless I was around—but they were wrong.”

A day before the hearing, Pant told one of his earliest volunteers, Manisha Dhakal, to attend the hearing and speak if anyone asked her to. “She was nervous, calling me every five minutes even as I was driving to the airport that day,” Pant said.

In the courtroom, Hari Phuyal stood with his hand resting on a stack of diverse documents, which ranged from a Tamil Nadu government order recognising a third gender to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which had ruled the criminalisation of consensual same-sex activity between adults to be unconstitutional. After Phuyal finished his final plea, Justice KC addressed the lawyers and asked: “Are there any homosexual people among you?”

No one moved. KC turned toward the audience and asked: “Is anyone in the audience homosexual?”

Dhakal stood up. “Yes,” she said. “I am.”

The judge asked Dhakal to tell the court about herself. Clenching her hands in front of her waist, she began, “I was born as a male and I have a male body and male name from my family. But that is not how I feel.”

She spoke about police abuse and the humiliation of carrying citizenship documents that listed her birth gender. She talked about LGBTI people being harassed at school and dropping out, resulting in them being economically “backward.” “You can see my hair is a little bit long and some of my clothing is for men and some for women,” Dhakal continued. “This is because my family does not know about my identity. I leave my house in the morning looking like a son, but when I get to the office I wear a shawl and put on a little bit of make-up and I let my hair down like this. This is my reality.”

The chamber was silent. Dhakal’s face was wet with tears.

But Phuyal, who had been preparing the case for months, was relieved. “In five minutes of explaining her life, Manisha did more for the movement than I did in days and nights of reading texts and speaking to the court,” he told me. Pant v. Nepal had been the most complicated case of his career.

Justice KC delivered the judgement on 21 December 2007. Though the full text of the ruling—a 36-page document that navigates various concepts of jurisprudence, gender and sexuality—would not be published for nearly a year, its message was already clear. The court ordered the government to audit all laws relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, and to scrap those that were discriminatory. It ordered the establishment of a committee to study same-sex marriage policies. And it charged the government with recognising a third gender. Remarkably, the court ruled “third gender” to be a category based solely on “self-feeling,” as opposed to the pathological or medical definitions of transgender identities typical in those legal systems around the world where they are present at all.

I met Justice KC on a hot summer day in 2013. He had retired by then, and looked back on the case with pride, recounting how in 2006, a year before Pant v. Nepal, he had travelled to the United States on a judicial exchange programme, arriving in Massachusetts just as the state’s same-sex marriage debate was peaking. He saw a small plane circling Boston, towing a banner denouncing a pro-gay public figure. “The banner said he was a danger to the society. The people who didn’t like him, they put the message in the sky,” KC said. I asked if the banner had intimidated or inspired him. “The sky is the limit of my interpretation,” KC said. “If I get one article of the constitution, I can interpret that within a reasonable manner. I can pull that rubber until its limit.”

He also thought that, given the way BDS had phrased its petition, “they didn’t expect the victory to come like this.” He felt that, had BDS made more specific demands, he could have done even more than just, for example, recommend the formation of a committee to study the possibility of same-sex marriage. “When you go to the court and ask for something, you must ask for more,” he said. “Had that been demanded it would have been easier for me.”

After the ruling, as reporters interviewed teary BDS members outside the courtroom, Pant told an Agence France-Presse reporter, “We all feel we are liberated today.” Then he turned and told Kantipur, a Nepali-language daily, “The government should comply with the order soon and fulfil its obligation.” His words resonated with an observation Justice KC shared with me: that “the Nepal Supreme Court influences public opinion a lot, but the government is always reluctant to implement our decisions.” For Pant and his NGO, the judgement was as much a stamp of legitimacy as it was a blueprint for continued activism. “This case was an opportunity to end the shyness of the BDS people and make them bold,” KC said. “Like what the transgender did when she spoke in the court chamber that day—I wanted that for them every day in society.”


BY THE TIME OF THE SUPREME COURT RULING, Pant had six years of experience working for queer rights in Nepal. His efforts had required patience, but Pant had also learned to seize opportunities without hesitation. Just as he had on the night of the meti’s cremation, at each step of his rise—from activist, to director of a non-profit and founder of a movement, to national leader and international spokesperson for queer rights—Pant had shown a willingness to shoulder responsibility. He had also been ready to wield power, and demonstrated a canny ability to conflate his personal successes with those of a larger group. Given his political acumen and background, Pant’s trajectory towards public office seemed almost inevitable.

On a chilly morning in November 2011, Pant and I travelled to his family home in Gaikhur, a village roughly 150 kilometres west of Kathmandu in Gorkha district. Pant manoeuvred his battered Pajero over increasingly rough mountain roads, dropping the SUV into four-wheel drive. We arrived caked in layers of dust, and were greeted by a dozen orphans who lived in the old family house, which Pant operated as a home for widows and children, whose fathers had either died in the civil war or emigrated (over a thousand Nepalis leave the country in search of work every day). During the war, Pant shuttled handicrafts and materials back and forth between the village and Kathmandu gift shops to help the women make money.

Pant’s family house is perched on the crest of a high ridge. To the west, a valley yawns open to the lower Himalayas; to the east, dirt trails cascade down to a hamlet of timber-framed mud homes. The house is an architectural rarity—three stone stories built in the Bhaktapur Newari style. Pant’s great-grandfather was a well-off local political leader, and the family hired an architect from near Kathmandu to design the home. Pant grew up here, surrounded by more than 40 relatives. The son of a schoolteacher, he was frail, often sick, and bookish. One of his earliest memories is of a group of Buddhist monks from India who stayed briefly with the family while on a pilgrimage. Enamoured with the serious boy, they wanted to take him to their monastery, but Pant’s mother refused to let him go.

Pant eventually left Gaikhur for college in Kathmandu, where he and a friend trawled the tourist district on weekends, looking for foreigners to practise English with. In 1992, Pant went abroad himself, joining droves of Nepalis who had shipped out to ex-Soviet states for higher education. Soviet scholarship funding had collapsed along with the USSR, but student visas were plentiful and Pant’s family could afford the tuition, so he enrolled in a computer engineering programme in Belarus.

By the time Pant arrived in Minsk, he was already aware of his attraction to other men. “I thought everyone must feel this way and we just got married to opposite-sex people because that’s the way society worked,” he said. After a year abroad, Pant visited a clinic for a mandatory health test. By then he could read Russian, and he noticed a poster that said “Beware of Homosexuals.” He asked a classmate what the word “homosexual” meant. “He said to stay away from them, the men who went with men and women who went with women. He said to say goluboi, ‘blue people,’ in slang,” Pant recounted. “‘Stay away from the blue people’ stuck with me. It was the first time I realised my sexual attraction to men was a political issue.”

Having left Nepal just after a people’s movement had secured multi-party parliamentary democracy there, Pant was drawn to activism for social change, and in particular to environmental issues. He took his exams early most terms so he could attend environmental conferences across Europe. “I was amazed watching those activists work—they were so articulate, so well educated, and they used research and emotions in balance to make their arguments,” he said. But after a few conferences, the admiration dimmed. “I began to understand their tone better—they talked about poor countries like Nepal as experiments, and places where failure wasn’t really a big deal as long as the data were good for their reports,” he said. While Pant was away, the presence of international donors in Nepal was growing, as were their multiple agendas—some of them shaped more by distant assumptions than local needs. Pant would retain a wariness of international motives throughout his career, even as he increasingly courted and received foreign funding for BDS.

After completing his degree in Minsk, Pant moved around for a few years, volunteering for a river clean-up effort in Japan, enrolling in a computer science master’s programme in Hong Kong, then quitting it to participate in a cyclone relief project in Orissa. In late 1999, he returned to Nepal and went looking for other queer people. Most of those he found were metis doing sex work in places like Ratna Park, a popular meeting point in central Kathmandu. “There wasn’t much for us during those days,” Pant said. “There were AIDS programmes but a lot of gay and transgender people didn’t feel comfortable going. There were condoms but they would break a lot. There wasn’t lube, so the metis used ghee or vegetable oil [and] the condoms would disintegrate.”

Pant began to hold clandestine meetings in temples and tea shops, and to visit detention centres to deliver food or pay bail for arrested metis. He began a discussion group and established a loose network of volunteers. Raising money from some wealthy, discreetly gay men in Kathmandu, he rented a small flat in a residential neighbourhood and, in 2001, set about registering the Blue Diamond Society, which he named after the Russian slang term—blue people—and the diamond sutra, a Buddhist sacred text that inspired him with its messages of non-attachment and generosity. Pant hadn’t yet told his family that he was gay, but he listed his parents and siblings as BDS board members without their knowledge, since he couldn’t find anyone willing to have their names associated with an organisation working on sexuality issues. “When I went to register BDS, the government clerk told me he was happy Nepal would finally have an organisation to convert people back to heterosexuality,” Pant told me. He rolled his eyes. “I cancelled the application and asked some AIDS activist friends what to do. They advised we re-file as a health organisation focused on HIV. [The new application] was approved instantly.”

STARTING IN 1992, a multimillion-dollar influx of HIV/AIDS funding flooded Nepal, coinciding with a boom in the number of local NGOs. One American HIV/AIDS donor received funding applications from over 80 Nepali NGOs, at a time when there were only 114 known cases of HIV in the country. Because BDS was a “sexual health and rights organisation,” it was ideally placed to access this rich seam of funding. In 2001, it was the only organisation providing sexual health services in Nepal for men who have sex with men (a label coined by the HIV/AIDS industry, which tends to focus on sexual behaviour rather than identity). It soon received its first grant and, with guidance from Indian activists like the pioneering Shivananda Khan, began establishing drop-in centres and conducting sexual health outreach activities.

HIV/AIDS funding came with its own programming targets and prescriptive definitions of problems to be solved. However, Pant was also interested in the political advancement of LGBTI people. “We learned from our friends in India how to build a support network without putting anyone out in public, but remaining quiet wasn’t going to be sustainable,” he said. Increased visibility and political activity, besides being risky on a personal level for BDS members, could create tensions between the NGO, its international funders, and the government. “People were scared of being open, and I knew we might suffer more at first for coming out,” Pant said. “But I thought if we did it then, we would suffer for a while but we could change things for the long term.”

Pant used his knack for orchestrating headline-grabbing events to great effect. Among initiatives like the Gaijatras, BDS organised a destination Hindu wedding ceremony between two American lesbians in 2011, South Asia’s first LGBTI sports festival in 2012, and frequent drag queen beauty pageants judged by local celebrities. For two years, Pant also hosted a television talk show, Pahichaan (“Identity”), in which he hand-held prominent Nepalis through conversations about LGBTI rights. He also continued to draw attention to cases of exploitation through mass emails and on-the-ground activism. One night in 2002, when Pant arrived at a police station to negotiate the release of a group of metis, a reporter asked him why he did such work. “I told him I was a member of this community, that he could print my name, and that there was no shame,” he said. The ensuing article was Pant’s public coming-out. (His mother, however, continued to ask him to find a wife for several years.)

As frustration with the monarchy grew and Nepali politics became increasingly volatile, Pant’s outspoken activism extended beyond the LGBTI movement. In April 2006, several people were injured by gunfire during mass protests against the king, who had ordered security forces to shoot demonstrators on sight. BDS donated 10,000 Nepali rupees for their treatment. Pant and a small group donned black armbands and joined the crowds. “It was a time when Nepali people were showing that marginalisation by the palace and the government had to end,” Pant explained. “[Marginalisation] was our experience as well; we were a human rights organisation like all the others, so we joined the people’s movement.”

These sorts of activities didn’t always sit well with Pant’s international supporters. A few years into BDS’s first grant, from the American donor group Family Health International, FHI staff chastised Pant for talking to the press about human rights and arguing with the police. “They wanted me to stick to HIV outreach work,” Pant recalled. “I told them I only work for them from nine to five.”

While some funders may have been uncomfortable, Pant was rapidly becoming a crowd favourite on the global human rights circuit. In November 2006, he was invited to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, for perhaps the most important international LGBTI rights meeting to date. He joined 28 other human rights leaders to hammer out the Yogyakarta Principles, the first major document to suggest international human rights standards for sexual orientation and gender identity. Signed by the 29 experts, the Principles are non-binding but have been instrumental in getting the UN, national governments and other powerful actors to take LGBTI rights seriously.

One of the experts Pant met at Yogyakarta was Scott Long, of Human Rights Watch. Over brunch in Manhattan in 2012, Long described Pant’s role in the debates to me. The discussions had occasionally verged on abstraction, Long said, as the accurate, sensitive treatment of identity terms often clashed with the need to distil ideas into a legally coherent framework. “Whenever the discussion got really linguistically lofty, Sunil would remind us that if he couldn’t bring this document home and use it to convince Nepali government officials that all of this was real and important, then there was no point to this work,” Long said. “He was right.”

“Of course, Sunil gets fetishised—the third world gay guy and all,” Long continued. Yet he called Pant “ideal as a queer activist in a lot of ways—extremely unthreatening to the rich, white gay men who think they control the global gay movement. But he’s also unwilling to let them tell him what to do.”


WHEN PANT WENT TO YOGYAKARTA, he was an outsider to Nepal’s political establishment. Almost immediately after his return, and with virtually no international precedent, he and Hari Phuyal incorporated concepts from the Principles into the petition for Pant v. Nepal. But in 2008, Pant took on an even bigger challenge: to bring Nepal’s policies into accordance with the Yogyakarta Principles by working from the inside, as a lawmaker himself.

After the civil war ended in 2006, Nepal began preparing for elections to convene a constituent assembly (CA) to draft a new constitution. Even before the details were fixed, Pant invited Edwin Cameron, an openly gay justice now on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which vetted South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, to speak in Kathmandu. South Africa’s 1994 constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In his talk, Cameron pointed out that Nepal’s constitution-makers in the constituent assembly would also have an “opportunity to inspire the world.”

Pant’s path to inclusion in that assembly was somewhat circuitous. To form the CA, Nepal had adopted a mixed electoral system. In addition to representatives elected from individual constituencies in a first-past-the-post system, a slight majority of the 601 seats in the CA were to be filled using a system of proportional representation, where elected parties selected a number of candidates from preregistered lists of nominees. On the morning the nominee lists were due at the Election Commission, a leader from the Communist Party of Nepal-United (CPN-U), one of the country’s several communist parties, called Pant and asked him to submit the names of LGBTI candidates for the party’s proportional representation docket. The country’s two main political forces at the time—the Maoists and the large, historically powerful establishment parties—were wooing ethnic minorities, but the CPN-U wanted to explore the potential of other vote banks.

Pant had two hours to make a decision. “We discussed how our community didn’t have much political experience, but we wanted to show that we were committed to the constitution process and to the future of the country beyond our own issue,” he said. Besides putting his own name forward, Pant nominated several metis, who were all disqualified because they lacked the requisite citizenship documentation. Pant called up 11 other BDS members who did have their papers. When campaigning began, these registered nominees and their supporters joined CPN-U rallies, rainbow flags in hand.

Thanks to Pant’s highly visible LBGTI campaigns, he had become a rallying point and symbol for those frustrated with mainstream politics. A group demanding 50 percent representation of women in all government bodies once declared him “the sexiest man in Nepal.” According to Pant, by March 2008, a month before the election, nearly every political party had met with the BDS and agreed to include in their manifestos full equality for all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokhrel had added a third gender category to voter registration documents. Queer inclusion became part of the election chatter, though the mainstream political discourse often took a dismissive tone. For example, the Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai criticised the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), a rival party, for being non-committal, “like a third gender.”

Election results were announced on 8 May 2008. The CPN-U had won enough votes to claim five proportional representation seats in the CA. Impressed with the LGBTI turnout at rallies and the polls in the 16 districts, out of Nepal’s 75, where the BDS had offices, the CPN-U offered Pant a seat. Pant was a political featherweight compared to some of his peers in the CA. But as a foreign-educated Brahmin male, he was also conscious of being a relatively privileged member of what the UN mission then called “Nepal’s most representative elected body to date.” With women making up one-third of the assembly, and 49 Dalit members, the CA represented an encouraging shift away from historical divisions of class, caste, ethnicity and patriarchy.

On 27 May, members of the CA gathered to be sworn in at Kathmandu’s Birendra International Convention Centre (Nepal has no permanent parliament building). Pant took it upon himself to introduce Raghav Bir Joshi, his party-mate and the only deaf assembly member, to his new colleagues. “It was a diversity party in there,” Pant said. “Everyone was so proud and politically correct, shaking hands and bowing namaste across ethnic lines—really, as if it was the first time they had ever encountered anyone different.” He added, “I wanted them to know that ‘different’ was broader—that they also had a disabled colleague and a gay one.” The next day, just before midnight, 560 CA members voted to abolish Nepal’s 239-year-old monarchy, and the country became a republic.

DRAFTING A CONSTITUTION proved to be knottier than declaring a republic. The process was stymied over four years by in-fighting and habitual delays. Many crucial decisions were made by a cabal of elite leaders, who routinely held backroom discussions. In June 2011, Pant stopped drawing his parliamentary salary and organised sit-ins to protest against the exclusions and inefficiency. “All that diversity was great,” he said, “but people from marginalised communities still were made to feel like they needed to ask permission to walk into a meeting about their own country.” In November 2011, the CA had still not fulfilled its mandate, and the Supreme Court extended the assembly’s deadline for delivering a new constitution for a fourth and final time.

Despite his frustrations, Pant proved to be an adept politician, forging alliances and using delays to advance a queer agenda. When CA sessions were late in starting, Pant talked members through a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation on gender and sexuality that he toted around on a laptop. He realised that his colleagues with perceived social imperfections engaged most with what he was saying. “It was people with children with disabilities, or people who had a divorce in the family, who came forward with support,” he said. “In a way all had the same fight against traditional social expectations and patriarchy, so all the metaphors of our lives matched up.”

By cobbling together support, Pant slowly built up his achievements in the CA. Eventually, the fundamental rights committee, on which Pant had a seat, secured full protection for LGBTI people in the draft constitution. And once a cabinet was formed, Pant convinced Baburam Bhattarai, then finance minister, to allocate a small budget (which has since increased every year) to support sexual and gender minorities. Because most of the violence BDS had documented targeted metis, Pant also began leveraging his position to promote BDS’s main initiative: empowering people who didn’t identify as male or female by pushing for implementation of the Supreme Court’s order to recognise third gender citizens in documents and official data sets.

Though Pant v. Nepal had ruled that third gender identification based on “self-feeling” should be accommodated in all documentation, translating that loose definition of third gender into actual enfranchisement was a fraught process. Then, as now, only a handful of other countries legally recognised a third gender, and each had its own classification system. India’s Aadhaar system, for instance, has three gender options; Pakistan and Bangladesh both identify hijras as a distinct category on some documents. Australia and New Zealand are among the most progressive countries, with passports marked M, F, or X.

In early 2011, to much fanfare, Pant persuaded the Central Bureau of Statistics to add a tesro lingi (“third gender”) category to the first national population and housing census since Nepal became a secular republic, putting the country on track to becoming the world’s first to count a third gender. The census was widely viewed as an opportunity to correct the longstanding exclusion of minority groups and historically sidelined ethnicities, and its data would guide the next decade of Nepal’s policy and budget decisions. A “tesro lingi” column was printed on the household listing form—a document the 40,000 school teachers hired as enumerators were to fill in for every household in the country. However, the category was absent from a second form, a more elaborate list of questions about socio-economic status. Census officials cited the limitations of their software. Pant told them, half jokingly, “I’m a computer engineer, let me change it for you.”

The BDS scrambled to hold “sensitisation” sessions for enumerators being trained in Kathmandu before data collection began, but their reach was limited. The official training manual defined gender as male or female and permitted enumerators to guess gender by name. Pant rallied his regional staff. “When the enumerators come to the house, all third gender people should insist they get recorded as such—it’s our right this year,” he told the BDS office manager in Bhairahawa, a small city in the Terai plains south-west of Kathmandu. A few weeks later, Pant received a call from a distraught parent in the Terai region, who claimed that she had tried to register her meti child as tesro lingi and that the enumerator demanded she strip the child as proof.

A year later, when census data were published, no third category appeared. Officials told the BDS that about 100,000 people had registered as tesro lingi, but because they couldn’t process the data in three categories, they had simply halved the number of third gender respondents and distributed them between the male and female categories.

IN 2011, WHILE A CAMPAIGN to add another gender to citizenship cards stagnated in the home ministry, Pant seized an unlikely opportunity—a funding crisis at BDS—to draw attention to the issue. One September morning, Pant arrived at the BDS office to find it occupied by hundreds of irate, desperate staff members. An HIV/AIDS grant scheduled for disbursement to the NGO in July had been held up as contracts shuffled across the maze of desks at the Ministry of Health and Population. As part of the changes in Nepal’s bureaucracy in the name of post-conflict stability, HIV/AIDS funding, previously administered by the United Nations, was now managed by the government. At the negotiating tables between donors, government functionaries and NGOs, tensions ran high—over both bureaucratic corruption, and foreign influence and opulence in the NGO sector, where salaries often dwarfed those of civil servants. Despite sending daily delegations to the health ministry, BDS’s money was tied up in red tape. As a result, there were no condoms to hand out, office landlords were demanding unpaid rent, and staff had gone without salaries for several months. Many of those occupying the BDS office relied on the NGO for financial support; several were HIV positive.

Pant called me in to the BDS office to witness “a lesson in what Nepali activism really looks like.” I followed him and a dozen angry BDS members to health secretary Sudha Sharma’s office. Sharma cited procedural hurdles: “We can’t rush these things. We’re not sure who should sign the contract to release the funds.” The enraged activists engulfed her desk, but dropped back at a simple, pacifying hand gesture from Pant. “We are not asking for haste,” he said evenly. “The money is ours and it’s months late. Our people are dying, and we are asking you to do your job.”

Pant exited Sharma’s office, his employees in tow. Minutes later, the group sat in the grimy health ministry canteen, laughing. “When you’re prime minister, Sunil sir, I want to be health minister,” Manisha Dhakal told Pant, who responded with a bemused, embarrassed smile—his stock reply to compliments.

The next morning, with hundreds of his LGBTI constituents descending on the BDS office in Kathmandu, Pant decided to take advantage of the crowd to generate hype for the third gender citizenship campaign. He scheduled an appointment with Bhattarai, who was by then the prime minister. Rain pelted the corrugated fibreglass-and-tin roof of the BDS office as Pant addressed the gathering: “The media will follow us around a lot,” he said, “just keep repeating that the Supreme Court ordered the government to recognise our rights and the government isn’t doing it.” Cheering, the crowd rushed out, headed for Singha Durbar, the government’s main administrative centre.

Outside the palatial complex, the activists huddled under umbrellas while one group haggled with security guards who were denying them entry. Pant turned back to his car, signalling to a few people, including me, to follow him. Nine of us piled into the Pajero and he drove up to the gate. Rolling his window down halfway, Pant nodded slightly at his lapel; the guard saluted, and we entered the complex.“This pin I’m wearing means I’m a member of parliament,” Pant told me. “The guards can’t tell me not to enter the government complex. And I brought my staff.”

Pant on his TV show, Pahichaan, on which he interviewed and discussed queer rights with Nepali celebrities. Kyle Knight

Once in the meeting room with Bhattarai, Pant launched into a well-choreographed charm offensive, supported by Dhakal and another BDS member, a strikingly beautiful transgender model with budding political ambitions. After some discussion about third gender citizenship—with mention of the funding crisis tacked on—Bhattarai promised to investigate the citizenship matter and stated his commitment to ensuring the dignity “of all third gender people.” Though the meeting was somewhat inconclusive, it left BDS members hopeful and was widely reported in the news.

Later that week, a UN official confided in me: “The reason you don’t see so much concern by internationals about LGBTI people in Nepal when the government offices act ridiculous is because they have Sunil and we know in the end he’s going to solve the problem. It’s the disadvantage of having such a good leader.” Though the BDS funding crisis stretched on into autumn, eventually Pant was able to free the money. The implementation of third gender documentation took longer, but in the spring of 2013, the home ministry finally ordered all its district offices to recognise citizens as male, female, or anya (“other”).


IN 2000, WHEN PANT WAS STILL THE “CONDOM BOY” of Ratna Park, he emailed a plea for support to several people, among them George Carter, a veteran of ACT UP, an influential American HIV/AIDS organisation. In New York, Carter collected money from his gay friends to ship condoms and lubricants to Kathmandu. He became one of Pant’s earliest and most enduring supporters. The two met in New York in 2008, soon after Pant was elected to the CA. In the gilded lobby of a hotel near the UN headquarters, where Pant had been invited to speak, Carter handed Pant a large metal pin that read “Commie Fag.” Pant laughed, and immediately put it on his lapel.

Carter had found the pin in the early 1990s, in a box belonging to a neighbour who had died of AIDS. “It showed that guy’s sense of humour, his daring, his arrogance,” Carter told me. “Even to say the word ‘commie’ or to say the word ‘fag’—you could not do or say or be those things in Reagan’s America.” Carter thought Pant was the pin’s most appropriate inheritor: “Sunil had the peculiar sense of humour, a sense of bitter irony that activists develop in order to survive all the sadness and all the nonsense.”

In the following years, Pant faced his share of criticism, and survived it with equanimity. But in the fall of 2012, the District Administration Office, the body responsible for licensing NGOs in Kathmandu, levelled more serious charges against him, following an investigative television report alleging corruption in the BDS. The NGO’s accounts were frozen and audited. DAO staff accused Pant of having illegally drawn two salaries—one from the government and another from BDS—while he was a member of the CA, demanded he pay both salaries back and pressured him to step down as BDS’s director. (Yet no similar action was taken against Nepal’s first Forbes’ billionaire, who had continued to amass his fortune in business while serving in the CA.) In his defence, Pant cited a clause in the interim constitution, which stated that his salaries were illegal only if they both came from government sources. The DAO refused to back down, and a protracted battle ensued, sparking headlines such as “Corruption, nepotism said to be sinking BDS.” Around the same time, BDS documented a rise in police abuse, prompting Human Rights Watch to issue a statement saying that Nepal had regressed into a “climate of fear” for LGBTI people. Later, the DAO refused to renew the operating license of Pink Triangle–Nepal, a BDS-affiliated organisation for gay men, claiming that the word “homosexuality” in Pink Triangle’s charter made the group illegal.

In June 2013, Pant took out loans, repaid both salaries, and resigned from BDS. In an email to about a dozen people—including Carter and Long, donor contacts, old friends, and me—he wrote: “My social, political and most importantly spiritual side of the journey definitely made me much better human than 13 years ago. I am leaving BDS with fresh yet experienced, courageous yet compassionate and several yet united ‘Better Hands’.” Many met the news with disbelief. In an emotional moment after Pant announced his resignation to BDS’s core staff, Bishnu Adhikari, the first Nepali documented as third gender, threw his citizenship card on the ground in front of Pant and said he would resign from the movement.

Bishnu Adhikari, the first person in Nepal to be issued a citizenship ID card with a third gender designation. Courtesy Blue Diamond Society

At a small dinner at a Kathmandu restaurant later that month, Pant welcomed his replacement, BDS’s new executive director Sudeep Bahadur Singh, and his wife. He told the few of us gathered that he was considering becoming a vipassana meditation instructor, or studying Buddhism. There were personal matters to attend to as well—chiefly, spending more time in the United Kingdom with his partner, a British forestry expert he had met a decade ago in Kathmandu.

Pant had tried once before to resign from BDS, when he had taken up public office. After a few months of his absence, the one thing the remaining leaders could agree on was the need for his return—the movement was floundering without its centre of gravity. Five years later, BDS is a more stable institution, but its tenor has changed since Pant left last July. It is now headquartered in a glimmering new building, partially funded by the government budget Bhattarai had instituted six years earlier. The new executive director brings decades of experience as a civil servant and development professional, but he is an outsider to the LGBTI movement. The vacuum Pant has left behind is palpable. One veteran BDS staff member explained: “It’s like we lost our father. One word from him was more effective than hours of discussing from other people. It makes us nervous for the future that he’s gone.”

This time, the departure seems permanent, and perhaps linked to more than just the face-off with the DAO. Pant has increasingly stepped away from the limelight in recent years. A “pink tourism” venture he launched in 2011 to bring honeymooning homosexual couples to Nepal was handed over to another company; the last episode of his television show aired in October 2012. Pant has also stepped away from politics after the 2012 dissolution of the first constituent assembly. Prior to the 2013 election of a new assembly, Pant was courted by all the major political parties. He and several hundred other LGBTI people eventually joined the CPN-UML. (The following day, a political cartoon in the Nepali daily Nagarik recalled Bhattarai’s earlier dig at the party. In it, one man says, “365 third genders enter UML,” and another responds, “Only now has our party’s sex been assigned.”) Though the UML went on to secure 175 seats in the new assembly, it announced before the election that it would not put forward any candidate who had served in the previous CA, ruling Pant out. None of Nepal’s major parties ran any LGBTI candidates.

In my post-election conversations with him, Pant seemed alternately resigned and itching to continue the fight. On 12 January 2014, as an interim cabinet prepared to appoint candidates for the 26 CA seats reserved under its discretion, Pant wrote to Hello Sarkar, a government complaint forum, to demand that at least one of those appointees be from the LGBTI community. BDS members held a press conference the following day to deliver similar demands. “The parties used us as a vote bank, only to exclude us,” Pinky Gurung, BDS’s chairperson, told reporters. Dhakal, now deputy director of BDS, told me, “We are taking Sunil sir’s name to the parties and the ministers.”

Pant’s continued interest in the political situation—and the fact that he still sends emails from a BDS account—hint at the difficulty of stepping away from the core of the movement. After the Hello Sarkar complaint, I emailed Pant, who was in Newcastle, UK, asking whether he would return if nominated to the CA. He replied that he wanted to see an LGBTI candidate in the CA, but he wasn’t interested in being that candidate. “I always knew I was stronger at seeking than the change-making,” he wrote. “I believe I tried to make some positive changes through various activisms, and politics was one of the avenues I thought I needed to try out.” Pant still had the capacity to surprise me. “It’s not that I am not interested in politics again,” he wrote. “I was never interested in the first place.”

I thought back to the summer of 2011, when I had asked Pant to show me around Ratna Park, where BDS had been born out of street-corner discussions. “I know every corner here by a conversation we had,” Pant said. He remembered “explaining international human rights trends, what was happening in other countries like South Africa, and explaining that it’s nothing wrong within us, it’s the social attitude that’s the problem.”

As Pant led me around the dusty paths, dozens of people gathered around him. The sun glinted through an orange smog and dipped behind the mountains rimming the Kathmandu valley. As we headed out, a young meti with dark eye makeup and chipped pink nail polish sprinted up to us with bashful enthusiasm.

“Sunil sir!”

Pant turned around.

“Thank you for your work.”

Pant smiled but avoided eye contact, appearing embarrassed at the attention. Back in his car, he turned the questions to me as we sat waiting for a break in the stream of traffic: “What do you know about starting a political party?” he asked.

I knew he had been toying with the idea of starting his own party on and off for a few years, and had even drafted a manifesto. “It sounds very difficult,” I said.

Pant gunned the gas pedal, sending his Pajero barrelling out into the rush-hour bedlam, then folding us smoothly into the traffic. He grinned. “Some people like difficult things,” he said.